Women And The Myth Of “Honor”
Women have been held hostage to a sense of “honor” all over the world, they have been placed on high pedestals to symbolize glory, honor, freedom…purity, chastity, refuge; so much has been placed on the collective shoulders of womanhood, that it is impossible for women to survive as free beings in the way men do. In itself, this may not be such a burden except that transgressions of the “virtues” women are presumed to represent, often leads to savage deaths of either the people (men) involved in such “transgressions” or, of the women themselves.
Wars have been fought over women and women are also the first victims of wars; they are the “collateral losses” when houses are bombed into oblivion, in order to kill “suspects”, they are the victims of rapes and sexual exploitation during and after wars and occupation. Seldom though, is there any discussion of the miseries of the abducted and raped women; seldom mentioned by the side of the perpetrators and seldom acknowledged by the victims’ people…”terrible things happened” is all that shows up in pages of history.
US, Germany, Russia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh…no country has ever risen above the mass rapes of women of the vanquished people by the victors and in almost every case the stories have been buried, not by the perpetrators as much as by the nations of the victims…in defense of their national “honor”.
The independence and partition of India and Pakistan was a violent upheaval that cannot be justified, even by the “prize” of “Freedom”. Estimates of the dead vary, but a million people dead on both sides of the India-Pakistan border is a conservative number. What was understood to be a peaceful bifurcation, was turned on its head after extremists on both sides, whipped up anti-’Other’ hysteria; Hindus and Sikhs forcing Muslims to leave India and Muslims forcing Hindus and Sikhs to leave Pakistan.
The out-going but still ruling British, sat on their collective hands through this great tragedy; the Army commanded by the British even though it comprised of Indians at the soldier levels, was restricted to garrisons in many cases and often, the commandants refused to intervene even when they were informed if imminent attacks by others (Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims, as the cases may have been). While India (and Pakistan) burned, the military was largely used to protect the English and their properties.
The exodus on both sides was massive and the trails bloody, entire trains would leave one country, filled with refugees and gat attacked en route by mobs who would kill everybody except the engineer who was forced to continue on his journey, delivering a trainload of corpses instead of living refugees. Revenge attacks based on real and imaginary events, was the name of the gruesome “game”; both countries were deep in chaos for a very long time. One of the better accounts of this period is “Train to Pakistan“ By Khushwant Singh, another is “Memories of a Fragmented Nation; Rewriting the Histories of India’s Partition” by Mushirul Hassan, while Sanderson Beck provides a good account before, during and shortly after Partition in his paper, “Liberating India and Pakistan 1934-1950“
Of course, there are many stories of the wonderful; people on both sides of the rip, who risked their lives to shelter people in danger; Hindus and Sikhs being protected by Muslims in Pakistan and vice-versa in India; while no side had the monopoly on good and brave folk, both sides tragically, had their evil members.
It was during this upheaval that was bigger then any Tsunami and more destructive than any Earthquake, the women were also targeted for abductions and for rapes. Women were the first targets by attackers on both sides of the border, across all three faiths. The reasoning was, that since the family, tribal and national honor is tied to women, abduction and rapes of women was the ultimate, lasting attack, bringing dishonor to the victims’ people. In many cases, abducted women were forced to convert to the abductor’s faiths and marry the abductors…as a slap in the face of the victim’s people and a permanent mark of victory over them.
So deep is this perceived sense of honor impressed in the minds of all societies, that suicide is often the preferred escape from an anticipated rape by the victors. In the case of the 1947 Partition, women committed suicide in groups or, volunteered to be killed by the headman of their villages, rather than be raped by the marauders. In one Sikh village near Rawalpindi, the headman shot 26 of their own women and one crippled man in March of 1947…five months BEFORE the actual independence day. In the same village 90 other women jumped to their deaths in the village well; three survived because the well had filled up so much with bodies.
In 1948 a water-sharing treaty was concluded between India and Pakistan in which Pakistan was to compensate India for the waters India would release to Pakistan on the natural rivers. Called the “Inter-Dominion Accord of 1948“, it was the precursor to the “Indus Waters Treaty“; The Inter-Dominion Accord included a small section for the repatriation of abducted people on both sides of the border…about 50,000 Muslim women in India and 30,000 Hindu/Sikh women in Pakistan. In the drafting of the accord, not much time was devoted to the “problem” of abductees; it was presumed that they were in forced to stay with their husbands and if asked, would not be able to state their desire to return to their families. The reality was that these women were considered to be “damaged goods” by their own families and tribes and were no longer welcome back. Most women had resigned to their fates and were settled in their new families, having had children as well and some were pregnant; these women knew they would be forced to part from their children and abortions would be forced upon the pregnant ones. In spite of the fact that nearly all of them preferred to remain with their new (if forced) families, their wishes were ignored and they were forced to return…to the fates they expected already in spite of many public pleas by leaders in India and Pakistan, for the original families to accept these women.
These terrible stories have been buried…deep, in India and in Pakistan. Illusions of “National Honor” have kept people…the men… who control history (it is after all, “His Story”) from discussing details and a crucial part of history is disappearing with the first generation of Indians and Pakistanis who, 64 years after independence, are dying out.
There are a few odd stories published on this subject by an author here and an author there, among them is the famous Punjabi poetess Amrita Pritam who wrote the deeply touching Punjabi poem “Aaj akhhan Waris Shah nu” (“Today I ask Waris Shah“). Amrita Pritam was known as the premier Punjabi poetess who lived her life beyond personal identity; beyond faith- or, national affiliations. She wrote her now-famous poem “Aaj akhhan Waris Shah nu“, addressing Waris Shah, the Shakespeare of Punjabi poetry, the 18th Century author of the legendry love poetry of Heer Ranjha and the songs of Heer Waris Shah. In her poem, she begs Waris Shah to turn a page for the cries of the women and to shed just one tear for them, to balance out the rivers of tears he has shed for this protagonist in Heer Ranjha; she is in fact, speaking to the people of India and Pakistan.
I speak Urdu and Pashto fairly fluently, I do not speak Punjabi or Sindhi although I understand both languages reasonably well. Glancing at the transliteration of “Aaj akhhan Waris Shah nu“, I was deeply touched by the agony of the women who suffered so much during the Partition of India…more so, because I am familiar with the narratives and grew up in the post-independence era where never a word was spoken about the atrocities committed upon women.
Amrita Pritam’s poem (see below or, click on a link above) transcends barriers of language, religion and nationality, they are a rare cry for the down-trodden women of South Asia and for Womanhood across the globe. In poetry, the beautiful language of love, Amrita Pritam has also cast the message that these stories need urgent action in order to preserve them for humanity and the ages.
Would that more people are persuaded to get the stories while there is still just a little time left…
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